here for PDF format
Participant Responses to This
of meeting with Phil Cohen
Civic Caucus, 8301
Creekside Circle, Bloomington, MN 55437
Friday, April 4,
speaker: Phil Cohen,
former mayor of Brooklyn Center, with some 40 years' experience with
transportation planning in the Twin Cities metropolitan area
Johnson, chair; Chuck Clay, Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland, Jim Olson (by phone),
Wayne Popham (by phone), and John Rollwagen (by phone).
Context of the meeting--This
is one of several meetings the Civic Caucus is conducting to gain
information on how planning is conducted and priorities are set among
highway and transit projects in Minnesota.
Welcome and introduction--Verne
and Paul introduced Phil Cohen, who has served in many local,
metropolitan, state, and national roles in a public career extending back
to the early 1960s. Cohen, who recently, was honored with a public
celebration of his 80th birthday, has served as mayor, city council
member, and school board member in Brooklyn Center. For 25 years he
headed the Metro HRA Advisory Committee of the Metropolitan Council. He
was president of the League of Minnesota Cities. He served on the staff
of Senator David Durenberger, the staff of the Metropolitan Council under
John Boland, and the staff of the League of Minnesota Cities.
Comments and discussion--In
Cohen's comments and in discussion with the Civic Caucus the following
points were raised:
1. Federal requirements for regional planning
and earmarking--The federal government shares in the cost of
highway and transit projects and requires regional planning organizations
in metropolitan areas. Such organizations' plans must be consistent with
their respective states' plans.
described the planning process using Highway 100 North as an example. This
project had five signalized intersections between Golden Valley Road in
Golden Valley to 50th Avenue North in Brooklyn Center.
question in getting priority attention is whether the project is in the
statewide transportation improvement program. The second question is the
status of the project with regional planning organizations. Regional
planning organizations, such as the Metropolitan Council in the Twin
Cities area, must each adopt a Transportation Improvement Plan. Projects
that receive federal funding must be included in that plan. The third
question is whether the project is included in the metropolitan
transportation policy plan.
case of the Hwy. 100-36th Avenue interchange, the answer to all three
questions was no. There was an urgency to reconstruct that highly
congested interchange and lack of state funding to advance the project.
Consequently, promoters of this interchange pursued other options. They
successfully obtained a federal "earmark", by which members of Congress
earmark specific projects in legislation. In effect, the earmarking
superseded the priority established by the Minnesota Department of
Transportation (MnDOT) and the Metropolitan Council.
recalled a case where the federal government had earmarked funds to be
used towards the completion of Hwy. 610 in the Brooklyn Park-Maple Grove
meeting two years ago with MnDOT concerning the status of completing the
last five miles of Hwy. 610, the then MnDOT commissioner told those in
attendance that MnDOT didnít appreciate the 610 group going after federal
funding . Gaining access to those federal funds, the commissioner said,
1) requires MnDOT to rearrange its priorities and 2) requires that MnDOT
must reallocate 20% of its funds from other projects.
Metropolitan Council's transportation policy plan, go to:
MnDOT transportation plan, go to
2. Availability of funding is the key--Notwithstanding
the requirements for planning, the factor in whether something gets built
is the availability of funding, Cohen said. The recently-enacted $6.8
billion legislative act increasing transit and highway funding satisfies
some needs but much is left untouched, he said. Within the metropolitan
alone, the transit and highway needs total about $40 billion to the year
2030, Cohen said.
for further funding increases is very uncertain, given strong sentiment
against higher taxes, plus other factors such as the growth in the retired
population relative to the working population, and uncertainty in the
growth of salaries, Cohen said.
3. Key role of the federal government--A
member of the Civic Caucus observed that Cohen's description indicates the
intimate role that the federal government plays on setting priorities on
transportation, because of the large amount of federal dollars involved
and because of the influence that individual members of Congress have in
designating specific projects where the dollars will be spent.
Caucus member noted that the emphasis on funding specific projects tends
to subordinate overall goals--such as alleviating congestion.
4. Importance of the role played by MnDOT--One
shouldn't assume that the priority-setting process is run only by the
regional planning agencies and members of Congress with their earmarked
funds, Cohen said. A long-sought improvement of Hwy. 169 in the vicinity
of Hwy. 81 and 85th Avenue North in Brooklyn Park, known as "the devil's
triangle" has been delayed because funds were shifted by MnDOT to complete
the I35-W-Hwy 62 Crosstown project on the Minneapolis-Richfield border.
5. Separate planning for transit and highways--It
was clarified during discussion that MnDOT and the Metro Council include
both transit and highways in their plans. However, the two modes are
always treated in separate chapters. Never does it appear, for example,
that priorities for transit and highway projects are established
together. Thus proposed highways and transit projects would never be
evaluated side-by-side as to their relative ability to meet a given
transportation need. Priorities are set within each mode, not between
them. It was noted that such priority-setting probably is inevitable
because of different funding streams.
6. City and county control over their
guaranteed funds--Cohen said that cities and counties largely
control the highway user funds that they receive under the constitution
(62 percent for state highways, 29 percent for counties, and 9 percent for
cities). However, he said such control is not absolute. He recalled
that MnDOT overruled Brooklyn Center in the 1960s when the city wanted to
use its highway user funds for sidewalks along municipal state aid routes.
The City then thru its State Representative and Senator sought special
legislation that authorized MnDOT to release municipal state aid funds for
No overall plan that all modes use?--It was noted that a new
joint powers board of the metropolitan counties appears to be emerging as
the main decision-making organization for transit ways, including light
rail, commuter rail, and exclusive bus ways. The Metro Council is
responsible for bus transit, other than bus ways, and MnDOT, with a
planning role for the Metro Council, is responsible for highways. A
question was raised whether planning and priority-setting for buses, rail,
and highways ever comes together in one place. For example, it was
asked, does--or should--the Governor be responsible for putting all the
parts together in one proposal?
Cohen replied that the
Legislature decides how to provide state funding for transit and roads and
determines the decision-making structure.
Highway and transit
advocates have always had different agendas, Cohen said. There is a
basic reality that forces them to work together to get any legislative
funding. There are those members of the Legislature who have their own
strong goals for funding transportation needs as they see them. That
forces differing transportation advocates to work together if they are
going to get any funding legislation enacted.
8. Magnitude of a federal transportation
funding problem--A shortage of funds is present at the federal
level, Cohen said. He distributed an article from U.S. News & Wolrd
Report, April 14, 2008, that pointed the federal transportation trust
fund, paid for largely through an 18.4-cents-a-gallon gas tax, is
anticipated to have a $3.9 billion deficit by 2009.
9. Local government acquiescence in use of
sales tax for transportation--A Civic Caucus member commented
that it is somewhat surprising that local government is accepting the use
of the sales tax for transportation. Traditionally, the sales tax has
been a source of general revenue, which has supported local government
aid, among other services. Using the sales tax for transportation could
make it more difficult to produce sufficient general revenue.
Furthermore, unlike many services dependent upon general revenue,
transportation has other potential revenue sources available, such as new
types of user fees.
Civic Caucus member commented on the question of the level of the sales
tax, with the upcoming vote on a constitutional amendment for outdoors
that would add 3/8 of a penny, plus the recent addition of the 1/4 penny
sales tax for transportation, plus a few municipal sales taxes, all on top
of the statewide 6.5 percent rate.
10. Importance of metropolitan review--Cohen
stressed the importance of Metropolitan Council involvement in
transportation projects because of the connection to housing policy. In
one case housing data indicated that bus routes weren't serving lower
income neighborhoods, he said. So the Council made a decision to change
the routes so that they would go through such neighborhoods.
11. Summarizing Cohen's comments--A
Civic Caucus member summarized Cohen's comments as follows:
a. Federal and state support is essential for
b. There's no lack of planning.
c. The big issue is money.
12. MnDOT must respond to growth in demand; it
can't determine the amount of demand--Cohen noted that MnDOT
has no zoning authority. Thus it can't stop the growth of
traffic-generating development near intersections and interchanges, even
when such development has the effect of requiring major improvements in
Caucus member noted that the owners of land in the vicinity of major
interchanges get to reap the benefits of traffic improvements, with higher
land values, without having to share in the expense of making those
that environmental regulations don't allow MnDOT to buy excess land in
advance in the vicinity of interchanges.
13. How Minnesota compares with other states--Minnesota
is way behind many other states in taking action on transportation
improvements, Cohen noted that Illinois, for example, makes much more use
of tolls in financing its major roads.
there's a fear in Minnesota that moving to toll roads could produce a
desire to find money by selling off toll roads to private, foreign buyers,
as in the case of Indiana.
14. Need for statewide leadership--While
acknowledging the existence of different jurisdictions, responsible for
different modes of transportation and utilizing different revenue sources,
the question of overall leadership still remains, a Civic Caucus member
Cohen replied, you need someone outside government making a proposal. The
situation is not unlike that which prevailed in the 1960s, prior to the
establishment of the Metropolitan Council, he said. At that time, Cohen
said, it took the Citizens League, a private, non-profit association to
take the lead and make the recommendation for the Metropolitan Council.
We need an outside voice now that points up the need for statewide
leadership, he said.
recalled the time from 1965 to 1977 when great strides were made in the
state, often accompanied by other proposals from the Citizens League, such
as property tax relief, the beginning of the state sales tax, school aid
reform, and fiscal disparities. In addition, he said, legislators on
both sides of the aisle worked together. Moreover, a stronger partnership
between state and federal government was present.
he personally continues to work in public affairs because he would like to
leave the world a little better than the way he found it. Cohen said
another problem today is a lack of good civics education. City leaders
are astonished at citizens' lack of knowledge about state and local
government, he said.
15. Thanks--On behalf of the Civic
Caucus, Verne thanked Cohen for meeting with us today.
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. Core participants
include persons of varying political persuasions, reflecting
years of leadership in politics and business.
A working group meets face-to-face to
provide leadership. They are Verne C. Johnson, chair; Lee
Canning, Charles Clay, Bill Frenzel,
Paul Gilje, Jim Hetland,
John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and John Rollwagen.
Click Here to
see a biographical statement of each.